Shinn's Reviews > Cranford and Cousin Phillis

Cranford and Cousin Phillis by Elizabeth Gaskell
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's review
Jul 22, 11

bookshelves: 2011, anthology, classic, drama, historical, humour, religion, rural, romance, society, britain, family-and-relationships
Read from July 09 to 14, 2011

One of my favourite words is saudade and I could not help but think of it here. The two stories that make up this book are different in their subjects but both dwell on change and a longing for the past.

In Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell, a generation later than Jane Austen writes of the things the latter does not, or could not: of the wars that left behind villages full of women, of poverty and of loss. Miss Matty might have been an Austen heroine who wasn't swept off her feet and carried off into the sunset; Mr. Holbrook her lost love. It is rather gloomy at times to read of a village full of aging women trying to hold onto a decaying elegance. However, the tragedies of every day life can be beautiful as well. The chapter where Miss Matty and Mary Smith read and burn old letters was one of the most moving scenes I have read in a long time.

I found it a little difficult to really like the characters. They are elderly, often narrow-minded women bound by strict guidelines and a somewhat outdated morality. And yet, they are generous in their kindness. They might look with disdain on Frenchmen and "Red Indians", they might kowtow to aristocracy, but they often go out of their way to help their neighbours whether it is Captain Brown who shocks the good ladies by openly discussing his poverty or the mysterious Signor Brunoni, or even the lame postman of Cranford. There are touches of gentle humour here and there: the literary contest between Miss Jenkyns and Captain Brown over Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson, Mrs. Forrester's lace eating cat, Miss Pole's faltering bravado at facing a phantom.

Cousin Phillis is a short novella that subtly intertwines the changing country landscape with a short-lived romance. There isn't much by way of action here but both the Phillis of the title and her father Mr. Holman are engaging, well-drawn out characters: hard-working and rustic and yet well-read and thirsty for knowledge. One can see a slight similarity to the Goethe quoting Mr. Holbrook in Cranford with his alphabetically labeled cows. Phillis, with her love of Greek and her attempts to read The Divine Comedy in Italian is at the same time a naive, isolated country girl and her painful journey to emotional growth forms the crux of the story. Mrs. Gaskell paints a striking picture of the old way of life slowly giving way to the new with harvests and railways, farmer-priests and engineers.

I liked the down-to-earth, unpretentious tone of both stories and the clarity of Mrs. Gaskell's writing is a delight to read. She manages to convey tragedy without dragging down the tone of the book and her humour never escalates into farce. This is a simple, elegant book, like the times it longs for.

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07/09/2011 page 49
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